Overlooked & Underseen: The Butcher Boy (1997)
In the mid-1980s, Neil Jordan seemingly burst out of nowhere into the film scene with films like In the Company of Wolves (1984) and Mona Lisa (1986), both films garnering critical acclaim including Academy Award nominations. In the 1990s, Jordan enjoyed more critical and box office success with films like Interview with the Vampire (1994), Michael Collins (1996), and The End of the Affair (1999). Jordan eventually won an Oscar for Best Screenplay with 1992's The Crying Game.
The Butcher Boy is adapted from Patrick McCabe’s 1992 novel of the same name (McCabe also co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan). It tells the story of 12 year-old Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens). Francie is growing up in early 1960s Ireland. Francie seems to be a typical kid; he loves comics, television, and hanging out with the best friend, Joe. Francie also likes to get into trouble.
The Brady household isn’t a pleasant place. Francie’s Ma (Asling O’Sullivan) is in and out of “The Garage”, otherwise known as mental institutions. His Da (Stephen Rea) is renowned musician and also the town drunk. Although only 12, Francie seems to be the man of the house. Taking care of the shopping, preparing meals, etc.
When he’s not taking care of his parents, Francie and Joe are running around the town getting into mischief. These boys aren’t bad, necessarily, but they aren’t saints, either. Francie has it in for a classmate, Phillip. Really, he hates Phillip’s mother, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), but he takes this out on Phillip. He pretty much terrorizes Phillip every chance he gets.
Eventually, Francie’s mother cannot handle the abuse from her husband and commits suicide. Francie blames himself since she did it after he ran away to Dublin. Left alone with a drunken father 24/7, Francie begins to spiral downward rapidly. He continues to harass the Nugent family to the point where he’s thrown into reform school.
At the school run by the Catholic Church, Francie continues his descent into a fantasy world he’s created for himself. He decides the quicker he acts properly, the faster he can get out of the place. He begins to have profanity laces back and forth conversations with the Virgin Mary (Sinéad O'Connor) to help him through his time at the school. The head priest (Brendan Gleeson) doesn’t necessarily believe Francie but another priest (Milo O’Shea) takes a keen interest in him and his story. Francie is quickly sent back home “reformed” after it is discovered he was abused by this priest.
Back home, Francie’s sanity slowly slips away from him. He finds out Joe is now good friends with Phillip and both are away at the same boarding school. His Da sends him to work at the local butcher were he learns to slaughter pigs (pigs are a recurring theme in the film). Francie is, once again, the caretaker for his drunkard Da. Finally, during the US-Cuban missile crisis where the entire town is praying for peace, Francie completely looses all grip on reality and pays Mrs. Nugent one last visit.
I’m not going to sugar coat it, this is a tough watch. When I told my husband I was going to rewatch the film, he said “I’ll pass. It’s too depressing.” I originally saw this in the theatre and hadn’t revisited it until this past viewing. The abuse young Francie has to deal with on a day to day basis is really harsh. The story is bleak, to be sure. Watching a child trying to cope with his awful situation all the while slowing losing his sanity is not exactly something one enjoys. I do think the film is definitely worth watching though, at least once.
The acting here from newcomer Eamonn Owens is really extraordinary. He has to carry the entire film as he’s in every single scene. There are lots of familiar Irish faces here people like Brendan Gleeson and Jordon mainstay Stephen Rae, even though most of their roles are fairly small compared to Owens’.
Jordan does a fine job blending Francie’s hellish home life with the fantasy one he creates for himself. The cinematography by Adrian Biddle (Aliens, The Princess Bride, and Thelma and Louise) is as gorgeous. Yes, some of the things going on in this film are dark, but Biddle’s photography isn’t. His shots of the Irish countryside are things of beauty.
The Butcher Boy is one of Jordan’s films absolutely worth a watch. Again, it deals with some heavy themes including mental illness and abuse, so please be warned. Jordan seems to have disappeared as of late, turning to television in the past few years. I think he’s one of those directors whose work deserves another look. It would certainly be a shame for his work to become totally overlooked. The film is currently only available on DVD, although Amazon has a high definition copy available for streaming.